When newspapers start to campaign – The Times Cities for Cycling

The email from my father this weekend started like this;

Thomas, Can I bring your attention to The Times Cities for Cycling Campaign which is trying to make a real push to improve the cyclists lot and safety particularly in our cities but not exclusively. There are already some top people signed up to it (most UK cycling Olympic team members, Boris J and Ken L, Gabbi Logan, Jon Snow, James Cracknell)…..

It was in response to the biggest public policy campaign to launch last week didn’t come from an NGO or a pressure group but The Times newspaper, which launched the campaign on Thursday motivated by a tragic cycle accident that left one of its young reporters in a coma last year.

As a response, the papers campaign is calling on the adoption of an 8-point cycle safety plan in cities across the country. As I write the paper is suggesting that 17,000 people have supported the campaign, and over 600 have emailed there MP.

Now The Times isn’t the first newspaper to launch a campaign to change public policy, indeed seeing it reminded me of a conversation that I once had with a former Government PR Advisor who suggested that many of the campaigns that are launched are worked out with a certain level of collusion with the government beforehand, but it’s a good case study to look at.

To see what the newspaper has done well in the first few days of its campaign, and what it could improve on, but also the massive potential opportunities for the right campaigning partner to come alongside a newspaper on.

So what are they doing well?

They give profile to a previously overlooked issue – Now this is obvious, if you’ve got a daily readership of 400,000 people, plus excellent connections with credible spokespeople (see the use of many of our Olympic cycling medalists) it’s easy to give a huge amount of profile to the issue that has perhaps previously been overlooked, and that’s certainly true with the editorial coverage of this campaign. The website Road.cc has a nice breakdown of everything they’ve covered and the celebrities they’ve engaged.

Direct access to decision makers – We shouldn’t underestimate just how good this access is. Read any of the diaries that came out from ministers in the previous Labour Government and you soon get a sense that they were in weekly (and perhaps daily) touch with the editors of the main newspapers. Add to that the fact that some of the advisors around key Ministers previously coming from the ‘fourth estate’ you can be sure that regular lobbying around some of the campaigns demands. I’m sure we’ll see articles in support of the campaign from leading political figures in the next few days.

They accelerate the policy change cycle – Perhaps because of the demands of a daily paper, or as a result of the discussions that happen before a campaign is launched, previous newspaper campaigns have been able to move from launching the campaign to declaring victory within days rather than, giving a natural platform to announce the campaign success. I can’t see the Times campaign as being any different.

In this campaign they’ve moved an issue that rapidly up the agenda of decision makers, and I’m sure across the country this weekend there are elected Mayors and Council Leaders trying to work what they can do to implement these suggestions. It’ll be interesting to see when The Times announces its first campaign victories, my guess it’ll be within days rather than the months it can often take for traditional NGO campaigns.

Engage new audience – Exhibit A for this would be my father, he’s a loyal Times reader and a regular cyclist, but he’s not a natural activist but so I can only guess that because the issue has come from a trusted source for him (his newspaper) its been able to engage him, and no doubt others in a way that other campaigning organisations can’t.

But what aren’t they so good at?

Taking supporters on a journey – Go to the website and the campaign offers a menu of three actions you can take to immediately support the campaign – Pledge Support, Spread the Word and Write to Your MP – but I’m not sure what will happen next to my Dad and the 17,000 others who’ve shown their support.

Will they hear more, or be encouraged to do more, or is their primary role to help provide the headline number? This is a space where a charity/campaigning partner working with the newspaper could play an important role, providing those readers who want to get involved in the campaign with tools and opportunities to do more.

Generating actions – I can’t decide if I should be impressed by 17,000 actions or a little underwhelmed. It’s a decent number but given the amount of coverage, the readership of the newspaper and the heavy promotion that it’s got on twitter, where #cyclesafe has been trending for much of the week in the UK, it puts it somewhere mid-table when it comes to the number of actions that movements like 38 Degrees or organisations like Friends of the Earth can generate. Perhaps its simply shows the challenge of converting coverage into campaign actions.

Seeing the issue to resolution – It’s too early to tell if this will be the case with the Times campaign, but given this isn’t the main business of a newspaper, it’ll be interesting to watch if the paper continues to monitor any commitments that are made to ensure they’re followed through on as opposed to simply being announced in response to the campaign.

Do you agree? Should we be impressed by 17,000 actions? Does working with a newspaper provide a great opportunity for a campaigning organisation? 

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O.A.Ps = Overlooked Activist Potential

Older people are an often overlooked but vital group of activists so it’s great to see the Sheila McKechnie Foundation launch the ‘Take Action’ award supported by Age UK to ‘recognise and encourage older campaigners who are aged 60 or over who campaign about issues that matter to them’.

In my own work, I’ve often been inspired by the commitment that some of our older activists have played in our campaigns, so its great to find an opportunity to acknowledge the key role they play.

Here are a few reasons why I think campaigning organisations shouldn’t overlook the valuable role that older campaigners can play;

1. Engaged – From voting to participation in voluntary groups most surveys show that the over 60s are more likely to get involved, so if we’re looking for people who are likely to get involved on a regular basis older people are likely to be a reliable source. Add to that the fact that they vote means that they’re a group that politicians like to listen to because they’re more likely to turn up at the ballot box when it matters.

2 – Well networked in their communities – Many older people have lived in their communities for years and are often active members of community groups, faith communities, etc. So if we’re looking for people who know other people to get involved in our campaigns using the networks that many have could be an effective way of doing just that.

3 – Professional experience – This is a theme that Duncan Green picked up in a post entitled ‘Are Grey Panthers the next big thing in campaigning?‘ at the end of last year. If we’re looking for people who can talk about the importance of health systems in developing countries, should we be looking to get retired nurses and health workers from the UK involved? Will they be able to speak with an authenticity born from years of working in the health sector that others can’t?

4 – Time rich – One of the criticisms of the current debate about ‘clicktivism’ is that it’s campaigning for the time poor. That it’s suited for people who don’t have the time to do anything more than send an e-mail or click ‘like’ on a Facebook page. Many older campaigners have time to devote to other activities, so perhaps they’re the group we should be focusing on to take part in high-level campaign activities.

So how should we respond to working with older campaigners? Here are a few thoughts;

  • Build alliances with key gatekeepers – I remember being told once that the government really started to take notice of the Jubilee 2000 Campaign when it started getting messages from local WI groups around the country. I don’t know how true that is, but it’s a useful reminder that coalitions could do well to reach out to and engage similar groups.
  • Profile them in our materials – Too often our annual reports have pictures of enthusiastic young people on a demonstration, perhaps it’s time to start to profile some of the activities of our older campaigners.
  • Remember to go beyond philanthropy – One of the untold stories in development over the last 20+ years has been the role that the Rotary Club International has played in the fight to eradicate Polio worldwide. Through its branches it raised over $900 millions, but more than that it’s advocated to raise over $8billion from governments, but you probably haven’t heard much about it. A great example of using a network, which has its fair share of older members, not simply to raise money but also advocating for change.

Love and hate – a contrast in approaches to climate campaigns in the UK and US

Justin Roswlatt, BBC’s Newsnights ‘Ethical Man’ had an excellent piece on last nights programme about the new approach that the Obama administration is taking to win over environmental activists.

It’s fascintating to see how the administration is reaching out to these radical students to get them to be ambassadors in their communities. One can only imagine how excited the activists must feel after spending so many years in the wilderness under the Bush presidency.

The slot started with an interview with Ed Miliband, the UK Climate Change minister discussing the way that the police have been violating the rights of UK activists in the last few weeks (although some would argue that it shows that the movement is making an impact because it’s attracting attention).

Miliband once against affirmed the right to protest at being at the heart of our democratic rights and talked about the importance of creating a ‘Make Poverty History’ like movement on the issue. It might be needed but the movement won’t grow if the supporters of organisations like Christian Aid get hastled by the police at campaign events.

Age of Stupid

Age of Stupid is a new documentary film about climate change that went on general release this week.

The film was crowd-funded by over 200 people and stars Pete Postlethwaite as a man who ask ‘why didn’t we stop climate change when there was still time?’. At the heart of the film is a call to action and the aim to launch a campaign to reach and mobilise a a movement of people who want to see more action taken on climate change and urgently.

I saw the film last night, and as I entered I was handed a pack of campaigning information and the hope must have been that I’d be so inspired at the end that I’d walk out ready to take action, but was I?

While it was interesting film, I’m not sure it has the cross over appeal that Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth. To much of the film felt like it was preaching to the existing climate change activists, rather than trying to reach out to new people who need to be convinced that we must do more than simply switch to energy saving bulbs.

Parts of the film felt unnecessary, containing material which runs the risk of alienating the very people that need to be won over. I’m not sure for example how the section on the Iraq War and the quest for Oil adds to the argument (especially now we have Obama in power) or the constant American bashing (which might play well to a leftish UK audience but I don’t think is going down with the proud middle American) help.

The film has a number of nice stories about the impact of climate change, my particular favourite is the French mountain guide, but it didn’t have a clear call to action within the film itself, leaving that to some titles in the end credits, which half of those watching my screening missed because they had already left. In the end I walked out of the film feeling dis empowered, that the issue was so big what could I ever do to stop climate change.

The materials in the campaign pack are clever and linked to a campaign which is being branded ‘Not Stupid’, the pack has some Stupid certificates which your asked to send to those who have are doing something to increase the likelihood of climate change, and some Not Stupid certificates to send to those who have done the opposite.  Plus a Local Action Plan, which is a concise summary of what is happening locally, or it should be but I’ve got a plan for Edinburgh rather than South London.

It remains to be seen if the film helps to build a movement of new people to add their voice . Its interesting to see the way the film has been embraced by the UK government.  I hope I’m wrong and thousands of new people watch it and start to take action, but somehow I don’t think I will be.

Upcoming Events

Some upcoming events that might be of interest.

Thursday 19th Feb – 5pm
Make Poverty History: Political Communication in Action
Book launch and debate at City University, London – more here

Saturday 28 Feb
6 Billions Ways – Making Another World Possible
London – more here

Saturday 28 Feb – 10am
Labour 2.0 – campaigning for the net generation
London – more here

Monday 2 March – 10am
BOND Campaigning Forum
London – more here

31 March – 1 April
eCampaigning Forum
Oxford – more here

And some campaign dates that should be in your diary
Fairtrade Fortnight
– 23 Feb to 8 March
Put People First-
March for Jobs, Justice and Climate – Saturday 28th March – London